The trouble with mental health at stanford – the stanford daily

In the past months, the outcry for better mental health on campus has been deafening. Whether you look at the “Stanford University Places I’ve Cried” Facebook group or the recent lawsuit against Stanford, it’s clear that so many students are struggling with mental wellness. It begs the question — why aren’t we getting help? But while many of us need proper care, it’s actually quite difficult to get. I also struggled to get care, and I hope that by sharing my story I can highlight why it’s hard to access proper mental health services at Stanford.

I had a rough summer before freshman year, and my mental health suffered a lot. Even though I had begun to feel better by New Student Orientation (NSO), I wanted to start therapy to make sure that I maintained my mental wellbeing.

I looked around for care on campus and found Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). At first, I was really excited about it. I knew that getting mental health care would be a long-term benefit for my wellness, and CAPS seemed like a great place to do that. But looking more closely, I was disappointed to see that CAPS only offered short-term care — not the long-term care that I needed. I shrugged it off, figuring that I would find a better suited option soon and that I could go to CAPS as a backup if my mental health tanked. But by the time school had started, I was so caught up in the hustle and bustle of busy Stanford life that I never ended up finding the time to look for proper care.

During winter quarter, my anxiety flared up again, and I really needed help — but I didn’t dare get it. Even though I had planned on using CAPS as a backup, my friends’ experiences had scared me away from it. Over the course of the fall, several of my peers had been involuntarily hospitalized and were forced to take leaves of absence. Their experiences were so distressing that I didn’t want to risk interacting with Stanford’s resources. I didn’t want to be taken away from my dorm and locked in a hospital room by myself. And most of all, I didn’t want to leave Stanford. Being at Stanford was my dream, and I loved being with all the amazing and interesting people I had met. As much as I love home, I had already spent a traumatic summer there, and I needed a break. I didn’t want to be sent home to sit in my room by myself. I wanted to be living and learning and growing right here at Stanford. I knew that leaving would only hurt my wellbeing, and I wanted to avoid that at all costs.

And so, I didn’t get help for weeks until I was at my breaking point. In my head, I had two options: try and figure everything out myself, or go to CAPS and risk being forced to leave. And because CAPS seemed too risky, I let my anxiety sit there, unproductively growing and growing as I struggled to cope. Because Stanford had mishandled my friends’ mental health care, I ended up getting worse too.

I struggled by myself for weeks, but when I finally couldn’t take it anymore, I went to CAPS. Fortunately, I wasn’t hospitalized, and I ended up improving my mental health a lot. But by the end of the quarter, my time at CAPS had run out, and I had to be referred to a therapist outside of Stanford. And while the referral process was straightforward and easy, it didn’t leave me prepared for long-term care at all. Because my therapist was someone I’d be having deep and vulnerable conversations with, I needed to find someone that I would feel comfortable around. The problem was, I had no idea how to find a therapist like that. Was there a ‘testing’ period where I tried out different therapists? Or was I supposed to commit myself to someone and change when necessary? And how was the switching process supposed to work? I had no idea — all I had gotten was a list of therapists to call. I just wish I had gotten some advice on finding a therapist because I was completely lost.

Beyond these confusions I had, long-term mental health care proved to be logistically difficult as well. While CAPS was a short five-minute walk from my dorm, therapists off campus were much farther away. The closest ones were several miles off campus, which meant I had to use either a combination of public transit and walking or an Uber to get there. But both of those options were frustrating. If I used the former option, at the very least I would be spending an hour total on travel. Considering that the therapy session itself was an hour, that meant I’d have to find a two-hour chunk of time that lined up with my therapist’s hours. And as a busy Stanford student, I struggled to find a time that worked. All of this assumed that my therapist was within distance — for many of the therapists, walking plus public transit was practically impossible. In that case, I’d have to Uber there. But the cost of transportation would add up, and I would already be paying for the therapy itself. When I factored in my family’s finances and the hefty Stanford bill we were paying, Ubering just didn’t seem like it would work. Either way, I was stuck. If I wanted to get proper care then I’d have to overcome some frustrating obstacles.

All of these difficulties and barriers grew in my mind and caused a lot of anxiety just by themselves. And as my mental health worsened, it became harder and harder to fight these frustrations off. Getting therapy was no longer something that could help me be healthier — it became something I had to struggle just to reach. In order to find the money, time and answers necessary for therapy, I’d have to expend lots of mental energy — and mental energy was what I had the least of. There were some days when I was so mentally lethargic that I couldn’t get out of bed. Going to therapy was out of the question. And even when I got better, the stress of getting therapy followed, nagging me with all of its complications and difficulties. Even though I really wanted to be healthy again, the barrier to entry was just too high. And in the end, I didn’t get the care I needed.

This fall, I’m finally starting therapy, and I’m excited to get the services I’ve needed for so long. But by all accounts, I’m lucky. I have supportive parents who are both willing and able to pay for therapy. And I have friends that have comforted me in my most difficult times, friends who have given me the extra push to get help. But I’m worried for many other students on campus, students who aren’t as fortunate as I am. I’m worried for the students whose families don’t understand or can’t afford care, and for the students who are stuck because of how difficult it is to get help. It really hurts to know that many of my peers at Stanford are struggling, and there’s no way out.

It’s clear from the recent outcry that too many students are in pain. The struggle to be healthy and happy is just too difficult right now. There are too many barriers: policies that penalize students, logistical hassles and uncertainties of finding a therapist. If we really want Stanford to be a place where all students can grow, we need to make sure these issues aren’t preventing mental wellness. We need policies that won’t hurt students in need and scare others away from CAPS. We need a better roadmap for students getting therapy for the first time. And we need better accessibility so we can get proper care instead of struggling to reach it. These changes won’t be easy, but I hope that we can use our resources to make mental health care an avenue for growth instead of something that has to be fought for. I look to the Stanford community for support, and I hope that together we can take the steps to improve our mental health.

In the meantime, I ask that we reach out to our family and friends and lend them our open ears and open hearts. Even with all the frustrations, my freshman year was bearable because of the amazing support I got, especially from my roommate and RA. That support was invaluable, and I’ll treasure it my entire life. I hope that we can all follow in their footsteps and provide some emotional support to those in need. All of us could use some help, and I hope that we can provide it for each other in these frustrating times.